Begin with the Basics…

…by Greg / from the United Kingdom / PhD Precision Medicine / 4th Year

Current status. Location: Edinburgh, UK. Weather: cold and cloudy. Beverage: Earl Grey tea. Currently reading: Moby Dick.

I’m Greg, and I have been a scientist for the last nine years. I’m studying for my PhD in physiology. I’m currently running the last set of experiments on what I think will be the penultimate study of my PhD, but this blog is about one of the skills that has benefited my life.

No skill has changed my life as much as reading. It is difficult to explain how transformative it has been, but perhaps this will help. I think 75% of people who have a significant influence me I have never met or are dead. Fortunately for me, their ideas propagate and live on through books. It surprises me how much books have influenced me because I have had dyslexia for about 15 years, so reading was never pleasant and always a challenge.

It is a challenge that undoubtedly held me back in the early stages of my scientific career. In the winter of 2016, I was putting the finishing touches to my MSc thesis in a small student flat in Dundee. For some unknown reason to me, I decided that year to give myself a New Year’s resolution. I have no idea why I decided to do it, and I had never had such an outrageous idea before, but I am glad that I did something outrageous for a change. I resolved to read ten books that year while having read only three in the previous four years. Reading 10 books was a gruelling process, and it took me a month to finish the first book, but by Easter, I had read all ten books. I was unemployed at the time, living in an area where my skills were useless, so I had little else to do, so I decided to read 52 books in 52 weeks. I completed that challenge, and I have done so every year since.

I love books, and it is impossible to understate how much they continue to change me. I have marvelled at the wonders of the Arabian nights, been locked in Room 101, lent my ears, played the bongos at Mardi Gras, riddles in the dark, seen but not observed, stomached Polyjuice potion, saved the Lark, found my treasure at the Pyramids, wept in the Chateau d’If and longed for that green light across the bay. Thousands of characters lived and that doesn’t include any non-fiction works!

Reading benefits my work life, and I don’t only mean in the self-help fashion. We are continually reading as scientists. It is simply impossible to get all the information; we need by talking to people. It would take too long! How would it work when the researcher leaves science? Consequently, we have scientific publishing. Now explaining scientific publishing would take several blogs and is not the purpose of this blog; however, you can find more on scientific publishing elsewhere. Broadly, written science can be communicated through formal academic publishing using journals like Nature. They tend to be targeted at scientists or those closely interested, however, science can also be communicated through books. I acknowledge that digital publishing through social media and blogs (and increasingly podcasts) are also used to communicate science, however, for this blog, traditional publishing routes are sufficient to make my point about reading. It equally applies to digital publishing and in my view, it applies just as well.

Academic writing tends to be tightly guided by a structure with little scope for creativity. Consequently, sentence structure and word choice are paramount and here is the one the main reasons reading can help. Exposure to good and bad language is a necessary learning experience that helps you understand the concepts being discussed, quicker, more fully and how to explain them yourself. Additionally, the exposure to language is also exposure to the thoughts, cognition and evaluation of the author(s). Finally, this does not apply solely to non-fiction and scientific writing but also fiction. Writing about a scientific theory is not so different from character, theme and choices.

Books are themselves a medium for transferring scientific knowledge. Historically, they were used to introduce new theories; for example, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Nowadays, they tend be reserved for secondary communication to summarise and discuss theories and their societal consequences for a wider and more general audience.

The classic example of books being used to document scientific history in my field of interest is The Double Helix by James D Watson. He discusses the discovery of the structure of DNA for which he, Sir Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize. An autobiography of a scientific discovery is rare, but it is especially rare to have been published so close to the discovery itself. Consequently, the book provides an insight into the process of scientific discovery and the attitudes of the scientists at the time.

The assembly of ‘grand theories’ and their dissemination to the public has a long tradition for scientists. For example, Albert Einstein authored Relativity. It introduced his theory of general relativity to the public in 1916. Daniel Kahneman also produced a book, Thinking Fast and Slow, on his work in behavioural economics and the psychology of judgement respectively, both are Nobel laureates. These publications serve a different purpose to academic journals. They aim to provide an understandable overview of scientific theories and their implications. They are particularly useful because they often introduce how the author considers the work can impact society. This can be to different extremes. Relativity is for academic physicists and remains out of reach for most and as anyone who has read Albert Einstein’s Relativity will tell you! Nevertheless, the book makes it clear that relativity is fundamental. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, is a heavy profound book that displays highly complex scientific theories, but it is more accessible. These books give others exposure to the thinking and writings of highly successful scientists. It is your opportunity to realise and evaluate their insights, that is invaluable to any developing researcher.

To be clear, improving reading skills for science requires exposure to a longer form of writing that greater than ~1000 words. I have nothing against shorter writing. It has its role to play and is deeply valuable for other contexts however it isn’t long enough to fully introduce, develop, explain and evaluate concepts and that is what needs to happen for people to usefully increase their reading skills, in this context. It is how you read the text in the literal sense, understand its implications and evaluate the reasoning that improves your reading comprehension.

Reading is one of the two significant ways we share ideas in science. It is the foundation of communication. Being a proficient, competent reader can make your scientific life easier in more ways than having a broader vocabulary and reading faster! Strong reading skills can help you evaluate ideas better, appreciate how people read your work and open new opportunities to you. Reading is a creative, imaginative process, and by reading a diverse body of literature, you will learn new ways to tackle problems from the wisdom of many. Access to reading material has never been easier. There really is no reason not to read more!

Reading is not only for pleasure.


You can find out more about my life in Edinburgh and science on my Twitter @endothelin1 and about my career on LinkedIn.

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